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County Of Sacramento v. Lewis


After a failed attempt to stop two suspects on a motorcycle, a police officer pursued them at a high rate of speed. For 75 seconds over a course of 1.3 miles in a residential neighborhood, the motorcycle wove in and out of oncoming traffic, forcing two cars and a bicycle to swerve off of the road. The motorcycle and patrol car reached speeds up to 100 miles an hour, with the officer following at a distance as short as 100 feet (at that speed, his car would have required 650 feet to stop). The pursuit ended after the motorcycle tipped over. By the time the officer slammed on his brakes, the operator of the motorcycle was out of the way, but his passenger was not. The patrol car skidded into him at 40 miles an hour, causing fatal injuries. The decedent’s family filed a lawsuit under Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that decedent’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right to life had been violated.


Whether a police officer violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of substantive due process in a high-speed automobile chase aimed at apprehending a suspected offender?


It depends. In high-speed automobile chases, the standard to be used in determining whether a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s substantive due process clause occurred is whether the officer’s conducted “shocks the conscience.”


The Supreme Court first noted that the Fourth Amendment’s “objective reasonableness” test was inapplicable in this case, because no “seizure” had taken place. A police pursuit in attempting to seize a person does not amount to a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Similarly, no Fourth Amendment seizure would take place where a pursuing police car sought to stop the suspect only by the show of authority represented by flashing lights and continuing pursuit, but accidentally stopped the suspect by crashing into him. A Fourth Amendment “seizure” occurs only when there is a governmental termination of freedom of movement through means intentionally applied.

Substantive due process claims protect the individual against arbitrary action of government officials. The Court has repeatedly recognized the “shocks the conscience” standard as appropriate in due process cases, and found it applicable here. In pursuit cases, a police officer deciding whether to give chase must balance on one hand the need to stop a suspect, and, on the other, the high-speed threat to all persons within the pursuit range. Accordingly, the Court held that high-speed chases with no intent to harm suspects do not give rise to liability under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Here, the officer was faced with a course of lawless behavior for which the police were not to blame. They had done nothing to cause the motorcycle operator’s high-speed driving in the first place, nothing to excuse his flouting of the commonly understood law enforcement authority to control traffic, and nothing (beyond a refusal to call off the chase) to encourage him to race through traffic at excessive speeds. While prudence would have repressed the officer’s response, the officer’s instinct was to do his job as a law enforcement officer.


523 U.S. 833; 118 S. Ct. 1708 (1998)

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